Images of people taking to the streets in China have been making headlines for more than a week. The nationwide wave of protests against the strict zero Covid policy is considered the largest since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

However, this is not limited to the streets: the Internet is also a major battlefield. Digital protesters use software like the best VPN services to break through the Great Firewall of China and spread information beyond the country's borders.

While the Chinese authorities are perhaps the best equipped in this regard, online censorship is on the rise around the world. In Iran, for example, the government recently restricted Instagram and WhatsApp in an effort to silence protesters. The same thing happened in Turkey after the Istanbul explosion.

According to the latest Freedom House report, by 2022, two-thirds of the countries surveyed "cut off residents from the flow of news and information across borders." At the same time, “governments are increasingly blocking, criminalizing, or imposing regulatory requirements on circumvention tools.” A VPN crackdown is exactly what's happening in China right now.

As authorities increasingly target VPN apps, a tech company has developed a tool solely meant to help people bypass censorship. As one of its developers told TechRadar, Lantern (opens in a new tab) does everything you need to access censored content.

What is the flashlight?

"Lantern is still doing very well in China," said Lucas, one of Lantern's developers. "It focuses purely on how to get traffic in and out of heavily censored countries."

People living outside of extreme censorship environments may never have heard of such software. But Lantern has been helping people beat censorship for a long time, since around 2013.

Users looking to escape the Great Firewall were the first to download Lantern when their VPN for China wasn't enough. "To a large extent, we earned our stripes in China and learned a lot there."

Then the 2016 wave of pro-monarchy protests made him popular with Iranians. A similar surge in demand was only matched in September this year, when the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini sparked an ongoing wave of riots.

“I think relatively early on, especially in China, it was clear that there would be an ongoing battle between the tools and the censors. So we thought we had a useful role to play. Useful knowledge and technical expertise to be more sophisticated.”

From protocol variations that hide traffic the government wants to censor, to multiple server configurations capable of bypassing authorities' blocks, Lantern uses a wide variety of different techniques depending on the censorship machine it needs to defeat.

"We did some small optimizations in some countries because we realized that we could exploit some vulnerabilities," Lucas told TechRadar. “There are certainly common things that we do everywhere. But it may be that a protocol that works in one country does not work in another, or simply the context is a little different.

For example, political events seem to be an important factor to consider as most countries adopt stricter control. in politically sensitive moments.

Available for all major operating systems (Windows, Android, iOS, MacOS, and Ubuntu), users can choose between a free or paid plan. The latter offers unlimited access beyond the daily data limit of 256 MB, and also allows users to access special data centers.

The vast majority of people who download the tool are free Lantern users. However, following the recent events in China, the company has seen a 400% increase in Lantern Pro purchases.

Anti VPN Flashlight

Lantern is certainly not the only circumvention tool. Secure VPN services are widely used to bypass online censorship, for example. However, according to its CEO, Lantern is better equipped for such a task.

One way to increase privacy online, a VPN spoofs the real location of users. This means that they can theoretically access censored content no matter where in the world they are.

Unfortunately, as VPN use increases among those living with restricted freedom on the internet, governments are doing more and more to hinder their work.

VPN encrypting a data stream

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

This is possible mainly because providers use specific VPN protocols to encrypt traffic that techniques like deep packet inspection can identify and block. They usually only have a few IP addresses in each country, which can be easily recognized.

Although VPNs now use tactics like obfuscation technology to bypass these blocks, Lucas believes the difference between the two is still considerable.

"With Lantern, there's a big gap between a lot of different techniques involved to make it more sophisticated to get around what the censors do and what the censors are capable of," he said.

And then?

With nearly 10 years of experience under their belt, Lantern's users have grown approximately four times over the last year. "Unfortunately, as the world gets worse, our users increase," Lucas said.

While the topic of censorship is expected to become even more relevant in the near future, the company is working on new features to open up the internet to everyone around the world.

Discover provides a censorship and privacy resistant archive of public content, while also providing an easy way to find and share censored or potentially censored content. Using peer-to-peer technology, all Lantern users can anonymously and securely upload videos and content for the world to see.

"The idea is that it be a free space to distribute content within the country," explained Lucas.

Available only for Android and desktop computers at the time of writing, the feature has already been used by Iranians for the past few months.

The use of flashlights in Iran is skyrocketing… Currently at least 8% of Iran's total internet capacity is using our app! Please continue to share our download for free and open internet access: #MahsaAmini #filternet September 30, 2022

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Still to be published, his Talk feature is a secure and private messaging service. It's very similar to Signal, but with more secure defaults and a built-in censorship bypass. It does not require a phone number, personal registration or SIM card for greater anonymity.

In the pipe there is also a web proxy project should be out by the end of the year. It will work as a widget that can be embedded on any website, allowing visitors to click on it and use it as a proxy to access the open internet.

Whether it's through efficient protocols running underneath or people in uncensored regions contributing their IP address and bandwidth, Lantern wants to be a tool to make the internet freer on a fundamental level in a truly collaborative way. .

"By implementing this type of overlay network on the Internet, we expect to make censorship a very difficult thing to achieve."

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